The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Mary: Le point vierge

Posted by Ron George on December 18, 2012

Our Sunday school class has been observing Advent with James Harnish’s little book, When God Comes Down: An Advent Study for Adults. This week’s lesson stirred up more than the usual amount of reflection. It was titled, “Mary: Le Point Vierge.” Best let Harnish explain.

“A French phrase caught my attention in the writings of Thomas Merton. Even poorly pronounced, le point vierge sounds better in French than its English translation ‘the virgin point.’ Merton defined le point vierge as the ‘point at which I can meet God in a real and experimental contact.’ He said, ‘This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.’” (Christine Bochen, Thomas Merton: The Essential Writings, pp. 60-61)

Le point vierge: Annunciation

Annunciation, artist unknown

Harnish points to the mother of Jesus as the virgin point of Christian tradition whose emptiness and obedience made way for the Word to become flesh and live among us. The paradox, of course, is that le point vierge is also full of potential – full of grace, as Christian prayer tradition has it – full of faith, the willingness to let one’s self be loved by God. It can go either way, this emptiness, this poverty of spirit. Obedience makes the difference, as well as a certain lack of self-pity that spiritually mature folk seem to have. One may be impoverished but live life full of hope. 

Harnish ended this chapter with a few questions begging to be unpacked.

How does the phrase “the virgin point” strike you?

It strikes me that one of many ways to interpret the French phrase is “the blank slate,” as in the slate of my soul upon which God’s word is writ – and we’re not talking about the Bible but of that living and active word scripture commends as the Holy Spirit able to judge my thoughts and intentions. I guess, in order to continue the metaphor, that it’s my spiritual task and duty to wipe the slate clean on a fairly regular basis and – in another sense entirely – wait upon God in that cultivated emptiness of which Merton speaks.

Again, the blank slate is full of potential, the possibility God’s being made flesh not just then and there in the life of a first-century Palestinian woman but here and now in the lives of faithful people. Isn’t that the plan, that we become daughters and sons of the living God? I prefer the image of le point vierge as a bud about ready to pop wide open into bloom. It only seems to be small, insignificant, empty and impoverished. Just wait and see. In the fullness of time, it becomes breath-taking, awe-inspiring, even holy – something set apart for the special purpose of glorifying God by becoming wholly and completely itself as God has called it into being.

How have you experienced it in your own life?

I have experienced this in my own life with my first walk in a labyrinth. No need for an extensive account here, but suffice to say I was emptied by the grace of God in that experience. I let myself be emptied (an act of faith), and I was healed of the underlying fearfulness of my life to that point and the shame I’d let gather on my soul such that I’d hid my light under a bushel for many years. In a sense, I became a blank slate in the labyrinth that day in October 1995, which was a turning point in my life, a tournant, so to speak. I let myself be changed, and it seems to have been for the better, though not without some aftershocks in recent years.

Palestinian woman

A Palestinian woman: Not a plaster saint

How do you picture Mary?

It’s hard to imagine Mary, because our culture has been drenched with images that say more about our fear of her actual history than about the woman herself. Neither Mark’s nor John’s gospel uses her name, which makes me wonder whether Jesus’ mother might have been a scandal to the early church – “that woman,” so to speak, who tried to keep Jesus from his vocation and mission; and, yes, there was some question about whether he was legitimate, which would make “that woman” disreputable.

Picturing Mary has been somewhat of an intellectual exercise required to overcome the prejudicing of imagination by popular religious culture. Divorced from the plaster-saint imagery, Mary is a typical, first-century Palestinian woman – veiled, modest by dint of law and custom, subordinate in society but essential to its proper functioning. Some sense of a woman’s place in first-century Galilee might be gleaned from the practice of Jewish men who thanked God they were not born “a gentile, a slave or a woman.”

Mary must have been appealing, for she had attracted a man with a trade, Joseph, who probably was older and well established in the village of Nazareth – but that’s all speculation, because nothing in Christian scripture actually describes either Mary or Joseph. If they were typical of their time and place, they may not have been especially pious. I like to believe they were, and Christian tradition at least posits an outcome of their piety – that they were chosen to be parents of the messiah; however, the question always remains, is it history or is it pious storytelling? Probably the latter, but I don’t have a problem with that. It’s what religious traditions do – they tell compelling, often beautiful stories that disclose theological values that may have only the faintest resemblance – or none at all – to what happened in history. 

So, Mary is not a plaster saint in my mind but a common woman living in an insignificant village in first-century, Roman-occupied Palestine – a Palestinian woman, as it were – and perhaps we should remember that when we’re picking sides in the Middle East. When we see Arab Muslim women keening their grief at a freedom-fighter’s funeral or celebrating another suicide bomber in downtown Tel Aviv, we are probably looking at images of the Blessed Virgin Mother of God. It doesn’t mean we ought to celebrate the violence on either side of that intractable conflict, but it does provide a glimpse of how Mary may have appeared in her day: olive skin, dark hair, brown eyes, prominent nose; in short, not a Western European woman.

LPV Merton drawing

Le point vierge: A drawing by Thomas Merton

How has her story been part of your spiritual journey?

Mary’s story has been peripheral to my spiritual journey, but I do recall something significant from childhood – I may have been 10-12 years of age – that wasn’t really a turning point so much as a memorable milestone. During a candlelight service on Christmas Eve at Fairlington Methodist Church in Arlington, Va., I promised God I would always be good.

I remember feeling a kind of glow in that moment, and at that moment, it actually seemed possible that I would always be good for the rest of my life. In retrospect, I have to say it might have been a moment in time when things eternal were sensed though not even remotely understood. It was the prayer of a child who, in something resembling faith, promised something to God, a vast concept of being that seemed comprehensible just for that moment.

It was a beautiful moment, a gracious moment – and, of course, the content of that prayer mattered not a bit. I wasn’t good for the rest of my life and could not have been, but it was a moment I’ll always remember, a moment of feeling close to God in worship on Christmas Eve. Mary of our fondest sentimentality was invoked as having wrapped Jesus in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. Candles flickered. Choir and congregation sang Silent Night, and time stood still for just a moment – no more than a flicker of time in a vast universe strewn with galaxies of stars, one of which shone brightly over Bethlehem.

What difference does it make for you to see the birth narratives in light of the overall story of the gospel? How does the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus impact your understanding of the Nativity?

The infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke are, for me, peripheral to the story of Jesus. They are potent remnants of a period of foment in Christian theological history, and they are among the most provocative images of the gospel accounts they inhabit. They have liturgical and spiritual value, but if they were not part of the tradition, I doubt I would miss them. They tell the gospel story in a way that creates as many problems as insights, even without (as Harnish might say) going gynecological.

If read between the lines, however, the infancy narratives suggest Christological elements that keep my head in the game this time of year even though no one wants to hear it. Everyone in the story becomes morally heroic if Jesus is, in fact, illegitimate. Forget angelic visitations and good tidings of great joy. Forget heavenly choirs and shepherds falling on their knees to worship in a stable. The impending tragedy of Jesus’ birth is much more compelling.

Joseph overcomes his religious and personal qualms. Mary becomes the woman in the gospel story most acquainted with grief and far more believable as a suffering servant herself. Jesus becomes the outcast who was not cast out, whose life was redeemed by unremitting human and divine love and who went to the cross for the sake of that vision – a vision of humanity become divine by never, ever giving up on itself by dint of God’s most powerful attribute: Love divine, all loves excelling, which brought that vast galaxy-strewn universe into being with the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. Not one chapter of this story, anymore, needs to be propelled or gussied up with supernatural elements.

So, I guess the infancy narratives do make a difference in how I understand the gospel, but only by seeing them obversely as mirror images with everything reversed. They tell how what might have been a scandal is redeemed by love, a theme that has run throughout Christian theological and spiritual history. The infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke mythologize events surrounding Jesus’ birth in a way that may have made sense in the first century but makes no sense whatever today. The actual story – and we’ll never know what that is, except by theological speculation – is much more meaningful. As lived, the story of Jesus began in unremitting family and social turmoil – and no one but no one knew how it would turn out – and ended in death and defeat.

And yet, and yet, and yet we proclaim: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.

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